Israel-Palestine: Forget the peace talks, follow the rail tracks

While the Israeli government's plans for a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza may bring a slight improvement in living standards, it also has the potential to erase Palestinian opportunities for independent economic development and perm

Anyone wishing to read the omens for John Kerry's latest bid at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking need look no further than last month's Israeli government announcement to proceed with the construction of a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza.

Ignore the diplomatic statements issuing from Ramallah and Jerusalem, this rail project visibly demonstrates how Israel sees the future of the West Bank. It is not as an independent sovereign Palestine. 

At 473km long and encompassing 11 lines and some 30 stations this new plan will complete the work of colonising Palestine, integrating its geography and economy into Israel. West Bank cities as far apart as Hebron, Jericho and Tulkarem, along with the illegal settlements of Ariel, Kiryat Arba and Ma'ale Adumim will all be connected to Israel proper, finally erasing the already punctured and porous Green Line. 

Of course, as Rachel Neeman points out in Haaretz the plan could conceivably point the way to the realisation of a binational state, or alternatively could be a decoy to keep Naftali Bennet and the settlers on board whilst Netanyahu pursues a peace strategy.  Unfortunately both interpretations are likely to be much too optimistic.

From 1967 until the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987, Israel pursued a policy of integrating the Palestinian population into its economy.  Under Oslo it abandoned this policy and decided instead on closure and then disengagement, a policy that reached its peak under Sharon and Olmert. Now this rail plan suggests a further reconfiguration of Israel's strategy regarding keeping the West Bank territory and managing its population. 

Netanyahu, despite his famous Bar-Ilan speech of June 2009 when he supposedly embraced the concept of two states for two peoples, has never favoured that outcome.  The West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he prefers to call it, remains "the land of our forefathers," and any idea that he would willingly cede the ninety percent plus necessary for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is fanciful to all except it seems Saeb Erekat and John Kerry. 

This rail plan then should rather be understood in terms of Netanyahu's "economic peace". Speaking in 2008 he dismissed peace talks as "based only on one thing, only on peace talks," and declared, "It makes no sense at this point to talk about the most contractible issue... That has led to failure and is likely to lead to failure again."  Instead he recommended "weaving an economic peace alongside a political process. That means that we have to strengthen the moderate parts of the Palestinian economy by handing rapid growth in those areas, rapid economic growth that gives a stake for peace for the ordinary Palestinians." 

This rail plan should be understood in these terms. While the tracks will undoubtedly increase the potential for Israeli economic exploitation of the underemployed Palestinian population - unemployment in the West Bank stands at 20.3 per cent - and so may lead to some measure of improved personal living standards, they will also erase the Palestinian potential for independent economic development and permanently embed the occupation both politically and economically.

Indeed, this rail plan reveals that Israel is not concerned with ending the occupation but merely reconfiguring it.  Under it Israel will keep the territory and resources of the West Bank, harness its population for labour, yet leave their management to the Palestinian Authority.  In short, it marks an end to the Oslo concept of land for peace and a return to the first decades of the occupation with the exception that it now embraces Moshe Dayan's injunction: "Don’t rule them, let them lead their own lives."

The Palestinian Authority understands this and so has refused to co-operate with the plan, however, through re-engaging in the negotiation process and thereby adding "the political process" dimension Netanyahu envisioned as a twin prop to his economic peace, it is in fact becoming complict with this final colonisation plan. The man who announced the plan, Irsaeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently said, “a Palestinian state is unacceptable, mainly because of our right to this land.” It is time the Palestinian Authority and the international community acknowledged this is Israel's reality and so ceased being accomplices to its realisation.

Jewish settlers waving an Israeli flag. Photo: Getty
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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear